Lowering Profiling's Profile

Friday, August 26, 2005

"TOO MANY of our citizens have cause to doubt our nation's justice when the law points a finger of suspicion at groups instead of individuals," President Bush said in his first address to Congress. Such racial profiling, he said, is "wrong, and we will end it in America."

Nice rhetoric. But judging from a recent episode, the administration seems more intent on ignoring and even deep-sixing evidence of racial profiling than it is in figuring out how to stop it.

The episode involves a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the data-crunching arm of the Justice Department, of racial disparities in the treatment of motorists pulled over by police. The good, and perhaps surprising, news from the study, based on interviews with 80,000 people in 2002, was the absence of any significant differences in the rates at which white, black and Hispanic drivers were stopped by police -- about 9 percent of those in all three groups reported having been pulled over.

The disturbing news, though, was that black and Hispanic drivers were nearly three times as likely to be arrested as white drivers were (2 percent of white drivers stopped were arrested, compared with 5.8 percent of blacks and 5.2 percent of Hispanics) and even more likely to be handcuffed (2 percent of white drivers, 6.4 percent of blacks and 5.6 percent of Hispanics). In addition, police were more likely to search black and Hispanic drivers or their vehicles, with 3.5 percent of whites searched compared with 10.2 percent of blacks and 11.4 percent of Hispanics.

You might think an administration committed to ending racial profiling would want to publicize these findings. Instead, as first reported by the New York Times, the administration tried to eliminate any reference to racial disparities from the news release describing the study; dispensed with any news release at all when the director of the statistics agency balked; and then removed him from the job.

According to the Times, a draft news release mentioned both the similar stop rate and the disparities on other measures. The troubling references, though, were crossed out by hand, with a margin notation asking, "Do we need this?"

The department official overseeing the statistics branch ordered the changes, and Lawrence A. Greenfeld, the head of the statistics bureau, refused to make them. Mr. Greenfeld was then summoned to the office of the department's third-ranking official to discuss the episode and, several weeks later, was called to the White House, where he was told he was being replaced.

This incident is disturbing from start to finish; it cries out for further investigation. The Justice Department's defense -- that no information was ultimately supressed because the report was released in its entirety, and that many of the bureau's reports go out without accompanying publicity -- is laughable. The deluge of government documents all but guarantees that an unheralded report will remain an unread one. Which seems to be, of course, just what Justice intended.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company